It must have seemed like a great idea at the time, the horseless carriage. Horses are beautiful creatures but the remnants of their passage (sorry) are not. Even today, when dog walkers are fined for not disposing of their pooch’s poop, police officers on their high horses strut off with impunity – leaving behind piles of the stuff for pedestrians and perambulators to negotiate. Suddenly, in that age of elite optimism that ignored mass oppression after the Franco-Prussian War and the American Civil War – the ‘Gilded Age’ of industrialisation in the USA, Birmarck’s German Empire and the French Belle Époque , the Victorian colonial Pax Britannica – there was a solution for all that shit.

Rich men could whizz around – in their Benz or Ford – at a dizzying  3 miles an hour, dismaying and delighting suitably hatted ladies and together they could escape the smoggy city for the bucolic countryside without recourse to the sooty train. They could simultaneously escape her protective relatives and all the confines of the imperial politeness of courtship. They could also, in some shady nook, escape their clothes. It was an age of parking. For some of these ladies, the rapture of freedom came at a price.

Even today, being able to drive and having access to a car – especially one you own – is generally considered a prerequisite for adult masculine identity. In a very clever trick of marketing, it is now also considered a prerequisite for female autonomy. The recent ruling that allowed women to drive in Saudi Arabia is a case in point. There are some odd people, the kind that had beards before everyone else or wear all-natural fibres (but not wool, mohair or angora) and belong to at least one collective, who don’t drive. But they can – and will let you know that.

Cars are used for caring, for the school run, for visiting the elderly, for providing mobility for those for whom it is challenging. For getting people to hospital and pets to the vet. Quickly. They are convenient. Who wants to take box files on a bus? Who can keep hold of two toddlers and a terrier on a train? Cars are, at the moment, a necessary evil.

And evil they certainly are. Richard Casson, blogging for Greenpeace last year, lists 5 reasons why we need to rethink our romance with the automotive industry:

  1. climate change (20% of C02 emissions in many countries)
  2. air pollution (0.5 million dead each year in Europe, worse elsewhere)
  3. continuing production of petrol/ diesel engines when electric/ hybrids are available
  4. cheating on emissions tests on an industrial scale
  5. rising popularity of car-sharing and cycling and public transport

So what can we do, right now?

Stop idling your car engine. It’s now illegal in many countries (including the UK) and typically happens outside shops where the mouths of children in pushchairs and dogs chained to lampposts are at the exact height to inhale the maximum amount of carbon monoxide from your exhaust. While you’re off on your merry way, staff in these shops are exposed to a build-up of such fumes during their shifts. Because you’re lazy and thoughtless.

Ask people to stop idling their engines. Explain why. Point out the toddler in the pushchair or tell them about the dog, unseen, behind their car. I’ve done this. People apologise, take it nicely. People don’t want to be poisoners. Not of dogs and kids. (Well, generally.)

Lobby your local council to conduct air quality tests around your local shopping centre or row of local shops, especially where they form a corner with a car park just outside that has only one entrance/ exit. This design is common in suburban areas. Contact supermarket firms by email or on social media and ask them what they are doing to protect the health of their employees in this regard. They have a duty to care. Ask them to consider putting a polite notice up (one that doesn’t contain the words ‘polite notice’) outside their shops.

Join in with the British Lung Foundation #DropOffSwitchOff campaign asking parents and guardians to stop idling their engines outside schools – because:

‘children growing up around severe air pollution are 5 times more likely to have poor lung development’

‘Exhaust emissions from cars contain dangerous pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.

On a day-to-day basis, high concentrations of air pollution can irritate your throat and lungs, leading to respiratory problems – even in otherwise healthy children.

Long-term exposure has been linked to worsening symptoms of conditions such as asthma, which is common in children. Diesel emissions have even been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer.

And research has also shown that pollution levels increase at lower heights, potentially exposing children to greater concentrations than adults.

Idling in cars, which means keeping the engine running while stationary when waiting to drop off or pick up your child from school, increases the amount of this toxic vehicle exhaust in the air.

Many parents believe that stopping a car engine, only to restart it a minute or two later, causes more pollution than idling. This is a myth.

What isn’t a myth is the damage air pollution from idling cars can do to our most vulnerable. That’s why it’s so important to switch off your car engine around schools.’

Brent Council (England) have a great schools pack PDF with lots of downloadable freebies.

Walk to the shops/ your kids to school – if you can.

If you can’t, consider car-sharing/ pooling with people you already know and trust. For the more adventurous, there are numerous car-sharing/ lift-sharing websites around giving advice on safety and insurance.

Cycle. Do I really need to list the benefits? If you feel unsafe (and you may well have good reason) then lobby your local authority for better cycle paths – but DON’T support deadly shared space schemes!!!

Try public transport. Bus companies are moving towards contactless payment so the inconvenience (daylight robbery) of ‘exact fare please’ is being phased out. Trams (when the network eventually gets built) are fun and trains can be both child and dog friendly. Let’s face it, there are leashes of love for both.

Breathe. We have the same impulse as our optimistic (and rather short-sighted) ancestors. But now we know that we can’t escape the smog unless we ourselves stop it.

We can. Together. If you can’t do all of the above, do something!


Thanks to Sheila Brown for releasing her photo ‘Tree Growing Out Of Abandoned Car 3’ into the Public Domain.